Sunday, February 12, 2012

Greek Lawmakers Approve Austerity Bill As Athens Burn

Greek lawmakers approve austerity bill as Athens burns

7:10pm EST
By Harry Papachristou and Yannis Behrakis

ATHENS (Reuters) - Greece's parliament approved a deeply unpopular austerity bill Monday to secure a second EU/IMF bailout and avoid national bankruptcy, as buildings burned across central Athens and violence spread around the country.

Cinemas, cafes, shops and banks were set ablaze in central Athens and black-masked protesters fought riot police outside parliament before lawmakers voted on the package that demands deep pay, pension and job cuts - the price of a 130 billion euro bailout needed to keep the country afloat.

State television reported the violence spread to the tourist islands of Corfu and Crete, the northern city of Thessaloniki and towns in central Greece. Police said 150 shops were looted in the capital and 34 buildings set ablaze.

Altogether 199 of the 300 lawmakers backed the bill, but 43 deputies from the two parties in the government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, the socialists and conservatives, rebelled by voting against. They were immediately expelled by their parties.

The rebellion and street violence foreshadowed the problems the government faces in implementing the cuts, which include a 22 percent reduction in the minimum wage - a package critics say condemns the Greek economy to an ever-deeper downward spiral.

Papademos, a technocrat brought into get a grip on his country's crisis, denounced the worst breakdown of order since 2008 when violence gripped Greece for weeks after police shot a 15-year-old schoolboy.

"Vandalism, violence and destruction have no place in a democratic country and won't be tolerated," he told parliament as it prepared to vote on the new 130 billion euro bailout to save Greece from a chaotic bankruptcy.


But he admitted that imposing the austerity on a nation that has already endured several years of cuts would be tough.

"Ahead of us, we have a complete and credible economic program to exit the fiscal and economic crisis. It is a program which safeguards, more than anything else, the country's place in the euro," he said.

"The full, timely and effective implementation of the program won't be easy. We are fully aware that the economic program means short term sacrifices for the Greek people."

Greece needs the international funds before March 20 to meet debt repayments of 14.5 billion euros, or suffer a chaotic default which could shake the entire euro zone.

Outside parliament chaos reigned. A Reuters photographer saw buildings in Athens engulfed in flames and huge plumes of smoke rose in the night sky.

"We are facing destruction. Our country, our home, has become ripe for burning, the center of Athens is in flames. We cannot allow populism to burn our country down," conservative lawmaker Costis Hatzidakis told parliament.

The air in Syntagma Square outside parliament was thick with tear gas as riot police fought running battles with youths who smashed marble balustrades and hurled stones and petrol bombs.

Terrified Greeks and tourists fled the rock-strewn streets and the clouds of stinging gas, cramming into hotel lobbies for shelter as lines of riot police struggled to contain the mayhem.

State NET television reported that trouble had also broken out in Heraklion, capital of Crete, as well as the towns of Volos and Agrinio in central Greece.

On the streets of Athens many businesses were ablaze, including the neo-classical home to the Attikon cinema dating from 1870 and a building housing the Asty, an underground cinema used by the Gestapo during World War Two as a torture chamber.

As fighting raged for hours, protesters threw bombs made from gas canisters as riot police advanced across the square on the crowds, firing tear gas and stun grenades. Loud booms from the protests could be heard inside parliament.

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